There is always this fallacious belief: “It would not be the same here; hear such things are impossible.” Alas, all the evil of the 20th century is possible everywhere on earth. – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Americans are inclined to believe that democracy will solve any country’s problems. Democracy is fragile and if we are to continue to lead the world in our quality of government we need to understand how best to protect the institutions and traditions that have made democracy so successful in America.
Democracy has only worked well for long periods in those countries heavily influenced by English traditions of government and law.
It is very important for educational institutions, particularly our graduate schools of government and service academies, to teach an understanding of how so many countries have been ruined and so many wars have been fought because of a single man or small clique gaining absolute power in a country. They should give a thorough grounding in how American government works, in political principles, and in leadership in government. Their graduates need to know that some individuals are consumed with an insatiable desire for power and will do anything to get and keep it, and to study the history of how so many tyrants have succeeded in gaining control of their countries with disastrous results for their citizens and those of their neighbors.
A very dangerous situation is created when a group becomes powerful enough politically to change the rules to increase its political advantage. There is a ratchet effect because as their political advantage increases they can continue to modify the rules to further entrench their advantage.
“You can have the most advanced and efflorescent cultures. Get your politics wrong, however, and everything stands to be swept away. This is not ancient history. This is Germany 1933.” – Charles Krauthammer, Things That Matter
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” – Edward Bernays in Propaganda (1928):
Democracy is not a political system designed to produce the best leaders, but a system designed to legitimize a change of government leadership. Its great value is that it allows everyone’s interest to be represented through the vote and allows the ability to remove and replace leaders, so long as the leadership does not seek, or is unable, to change the rules so as to consolidate power against removal, as so often happens in other countries.
Democracy is fragile and if we are to continue to lead the world in our quality of government we need to understand why it is so fragile and what the greatest threats to it are here in this country.
Universal suffrage has not been a feature of democracies until modern times and its dangers are becoming more obvious as the welfare state takes an ever larger share of modern democracies’ economies and snares ever greater numbers of people in a web of dependency.
Democracies can only work well if a majority of those who actually vote are voting from a perspective of enlightened self-interest rather than for “what’s in it for me at public expense”.
SOCIAL POLICIES EFFECTS ON DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT
Recently Progressives have managed to combine so many narrowly focused and diverse self-interested groups that they are on the cusp of achieving a working majority. What’s new is that government’s role in social policy and transfers has grown so large that a great many people who formerly took little interest in public affairs are now voting, and for narrowly focused self-interested reasons.
In an advanced social democracy where the left has locked in the franchise, there will be more people receiving benefits and subsidies from government than net contributors to the cost of government, causing a self-perpetuating downward pressure on growth of per capita GDP and living standards.
Social policies that economically incentivize illegitimacy and divorce, so that children at the lower end of the economic scale are raised without their fathers help and influence are producing diminished lives by the millions and threatening the future of democratic government. A democracy cannot succeed if a majority of its voting citizens come from dysfunctional families.
There are several reasons why universal franchise has worked so well in the U.S. Originally the franchise was limited to property owners and to men. Universal suffrage was not instituted until 1919. Women did not vote differently from men until recently when government transfer programs for unmarried women with children became so pervasive and divorce and illegitimacy exploded.
The threat inherent in universal suffrage is that of politicians learning to game the system by using the taxing power for transfer payments. As transfers and subsidies proliferate, dependency totals grow, and more and more different groups are formed with specific self-interested political agendas, increasing the incentive to see who can promise the most. As politics becomes more scientific and the numbers parsed for each group on the take, the process becomes more and more threatening to the survival of liberal democracy.
In the past, a critical mass of voters put the nations’ welfare first in their political decisions. The majority of the less responsible citizens voted in smaller percentages. They had less incentive to vote for selfish interests because there were few programs that gave financial subsidies to large numbers of people, and public employee unions were few with little political power.
Our country’s political structure appears to be facing greater threats than it has at any time since the Civil War. Democrats are talking about abandoning the Electoral College, packing the Supreme court, lowering the voting age to 16, giving the vote to felons, granting statehood to Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, abolishing the legislative filibuster in the Senate, opening the borders to uncontrolled immigration, etc. Each of these changes would change the balance of power between the two major parties and adoption of just a few of them would make it impossible for the Republicans to win national elections.
America has proved the importance of maintaining a healthy, competitive two party system. With the Democratic Party proposing multiple, unrealistic, socialistic policy proposals along with structural changes that would give them an overwhelming advantage, it may be an opportune time to consider a more rational voting system which promises to attract better candidates and produce more rational and better run government. It would require a constitutional amendment but the arguments for it seem compelling when considered objectively.
Politicians who advocate lowering the voting age, giving the vote to felons, and open borders immigration, do so because they think they can more easily win elections by raising the percentage of ill-informed and irresponsible citizens in the voting pool?
The threats to our country’s financial system from the seemingly unrestrainable growth of entitlements are so dire that we may be forced to reconsider our voting system. Considered objectively it makes little sense to have a system of universal, equally weighted voting rights when the government has a social support system in which half of its citizens are taxed to subsidize a large portion of the other half. The problem is what to put in its place. The trick is to achieve a reasonable balance between representing everyone’s interest and weighting the vote more toward those who are better informed about government and who are contributing a larger share to the support of government through taxes; and to do it in a way that can generate enough popular support for a constitutional amendment incorporating it. That everyone’s vote shall count equally is not part of the Ten Commandments.
Acemoglu and Robinson have written an excellent and well researched book, Why Nations Fail, in which they document that for hundreds of years the most successful nations have distributed political power among relatively large proportions of their populations. Since the early stages of the Industrial Revolution nations ruled by dictators and/or small cliques or oligarchies have not been successful for long periods. Nations are run for the benefit of those with political power and when the power is narrowly distributed the nation will be handicapped since those in power will not create their own competition by providing greater opportunity for those without power. It is a wide distribution of opportunity for economic and scientific advance that leads to the success of a nation. The most successful nations are those that maximize individual opportunity for the majority of their citizens. The ideal society is one that equalizes, to the extent practicable, equality of opportunity.
A BETTER VOTING SYSTEM – EXAMPLES
A voting system along the following lines would give far better results than the existing one:
Every citizen would have one vote and those who paid federal income taxes, net of all government transfers except Social Security and Medicare, an additional vote. Non-taxpaying spouses would have the same voting weight as the taxpaying spouse. Both taxpayers and non-taxpayers could gain an additional vote by having passed the citizenship test within the previous 10 years. The citizenship test should be improved and made more comprehensive than the current version to give the best results.
An enhancement of this plan would use a more comprehensive citizenship test such as the following:
The test would measure an eligible voter’s knowledge of the American political system, American government, the philosophy behind it, checks and balances, federalism, federal budgeting, entitlement policy, tax policy, regulatory policy, foreign and defense policy, etc. A committee selected by members of the Democratic National Committee would prepare half the test questions and a committee selected by members of the Republican National Committee would prepare half the test questions. The test would be in two equal sections, one section prepared by each political party, so the test-taker would know which party was responsible for preparing each question. This element would be educational in itself because it would give the voter an enhanced understanding of the governing philosophy of the two parties and how they differed, the types of things each party considered most essential for the country’s citizens to know. There would be multiple versions of the tests so someone couldn’t gain an advantage by just learning the test questions in advance. The tests would be assigned at random to those taking the tests.
The test could be taken at scheduled times under bipartisan election officials’ supervision. A failing grade would make a person ineligible to take the test again for two years. A passing grade would be 70% and be good for 10 years. A passing grade would entitle the voter to one additional vote. No one is required to take the test.
Each party could prepare books and pamphlets (reproduced on their websites) which could be studied to prepare for the test. These materials could outline the Party’s philosophy of government and outline and explain the key elements of government, its policies, governing structure, legal system, regulatory system, social support systems, budgetary system, essentials of foreign and defense policy, etc.
Is it really reasonable to expect that we can have good government consistently if the majority of votes are typically cast by citizens who have very little understanding of how our government works or of the most serious problems it has to manage successfully, and if a majority of this majority is paying little or no income tax?
Benefits of a Citizenship Test
The extra vote allowed for passing the test would have the potential of doing more to encourage increasing the quality of the humanities in American education than any other approach. In history, the important lessons of history would become the main focus rather than the relatively unimportant trendy subjects that are currently taught; in economics, a better understanding of macroeconomics and the various roles of government and the private economy and their interrelationship; and in civics and social studies, a focus on what makes for responsible citizenship and the conditions and institutions that foster it.
Such a voting system would ensure that the voting weight of the young, inexperienced, and ignorant would be low and increase as they mature, earned more and became more knowledgeable and responsible.
The voting weight of the more productive, more responsible and more intelligent part of population would be increased and that of the less productive, less responsible and less intelligent reduced.
A voting system generally along the lines of the above proposal would greatly reduce the chance of demagogues winning elections and would increase the quality of candidates seeking office because election dynamics would favor those pursuing reasonable policies vs those whose main political skill was the ability to emotionally arouse the crowd with simplistic but emotionally appealing solutions.
The civics test element should have a transformative effect on the American system of education in the areas applicable to educating for responsible citizenship. The current educational climate is often poisonous to responsible citizenship education.
This specific voting plan is unlikely to be adopted but it incorporates the general principles of a voting system that would produce superior results and there are many variations that could produce more responsible government if put into practice. It is given as an example of how a realistic improved voting plan might be designed.
A plan that would greatly improve election outcomes would simply require passing the current immigration citizenship test (with more questions and a 70% pass rate) for voting registrations to remain valid.
A recommended change to the nomination of presidential candidates is outlined below:
The reforms by both parties following the Democrats’ McGovern-Fraser Commission’s recommendations weakened the parties’ roles in the presidential nomination process and weakened their role in politics overall. The weakening of the parties’ roles in the political process generally has contributed to partisanship becoming more extreme because it has allowed a larger role for the most strident activists. Changing the rules to nearly eliminate the party regulars’ roles in the selection of presidential nominees has resulted in presidential nominees being chosen who are less moderate in their views. The Democratic presidential nominees have tended to be more progressive and the Republican nominees more conservative. The result has been an election between nominees with stronger differences in their political philosophy and less appeal to the broad middle of our population. The rules regarding nomination of presidential candidates need to be changed again. It is unlikely that the Democrats in blue states will change the rules in a way that, in their view, makes them less democratic, but Republicans in red states can change the rules for nominating presidential candidates in a way that gives the party apparatus more influence in the selection of nominees. This would both strengthen the party and increase the chances of choosing nominees who would be more likely to win the general election because of their greater appeal to independents.
Fiscal crises solution?
A monumental fiscal crisis brought on by decades of Washington dysfunction looms. The Congressional Budget Office projects U.S. debt held by the public will equal gross domestic product this year and interest on it will equal discretionary, nondefense spending by 2031.
Adding 1 percent to the average interest rate in the CBO’s forecast would result in the government’s annual interest bill reaching $2 trillion by 2033. Individual income taxes are projected at $2.5 trillion this year. Compound interest is a killer when not offset by faster growth in income.
The most sensible way to manage the fiscal problem is to trim entitlements but this appears currently to be politically infeasible. The other way is to raise taxes but this is a loser if it cuts productivity growth. The following suggestion would work well should it prove to be politically practical.
Institute a VAT to match net interest on the federal debt and net transfers, actuarially determined – all welfare type transfers including all Medicaid and the net actuarial cost to government of Social Security and Medicare after taking into account contributions. The rate would have to be computed each year based on previous year costs, so would lag.
Such a structure would have two great advantages. It would 1) eliminate the problem of interest compounding on the national debt and 2) reduce the relentless pressure on legislators to increase entitlements because every voter would be paying for any increase through increased VAT taxes.
Senatorial selection process
The 17th Amendment, which changed the election of Senators from election by state legislators to election by popular vote, was passed for seemingly persuasive reasons. The process was vulnerable to corrupt influence because of the power of political bosses. However, the 17th Amendment was probably a mistake and the abuses could have been minimized by changing the rules in a less drastic way. A great advantage of the election of senators by state legislatures is that it strengthens federalism and should result in the election of more able senators because they would be elected by people who may actually know them and who are experienced in the political process and the roles of government.